Bob at Irvine (for Peter Stone Brown)

Alex Sherman
Oct 22 · 7 min read
Bob at Irvine.

This review of Bob’s Fall 2019 tour opener at Irvine is dedicated to the late Peter Stone Brown, the Dylanologist of Philadelphia, who died on October 5 at the age of 68.

I never met Peter in person, but I have appreciated his contributions to the Dylan community ever since I encountered him on the message boards in the late 90s, when I was in high school.

Who’s to say how we made the connection, but Peter was the first person who told me the story about the chorale club at my school that took credit for writing “Blowin’ in the Wind” back in ’63, and held fast to the story til mid-70s.

Peter knew the story not only because he was steeped more deeply in Dylan lore than a lot of people, but also because we went to the same high school, decades apart. Our emails are lost to the part of the internet that still forgets, but I remember him telling me about life in our little suburb in his time and how it wasn’t great then either.

Peter’s writing about Bob was non plus ultra. His write-up of “More Blood, More Tracks” — heavily informed by his brother Tony’s playing on the New York sessions —is a beautiful piece of Dylanology. (Link: He had a strong ear for the evolving presentation of Dylan’s music. Even when he was critical of a performance, his gratitude for being there always shined through. I always felt he understood that writing about Dylan, particularly a concert, can be like describing Picasso paint. Only with true mastery can words truly capture the majesty of creation.

Peter was on my mind in the days after he passed on October 5. The Fall Tour was less than a week away, and the build up was intense. There was a longer than usual wait for dates to be announced, and I started preparing for the worst. Then, when rumors started to circulate about Matt Chamberlain replacing George Recile on drums, I started daydreaming about a new sound, and Bob picking up the guitar. I also wondered how Bob might pay his respects to the songwriter Robert Hunter, a major link between Bob and Jerry. Would he play Silvio or cover “Friend of the Devil” (like he did in ’99)? Anything from Together Through Life, the 2009 album they wrote together, would be good too.

These sorts of questions are nice, trivial diversions. I don’t have any strong preferences. At this point, everything feels like a gift. But these questions seem to take on heightened importance for me, in the context of my own relationship to Bob’s music. But what makes the tour opener so special is it’s not only the answers that matter, but also the way they are revealed, and in Irvine the answers came all at once.

Here was Bob and his bobness. Dressed in black, our hero at center stage, silhouetted by a sea of light, and circled by a circus of department store mannequins in cabaret attire. With his trusty axe slung over his shoulder, Bob and his band plowed into the great “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” a song he wrote with Hunter. Through the song’s three solos, Bob’s unchained hand floated up and down the neck of his strat, until his final solo, in which he delivered one of those raging one-noters that only Bob can play. It was a tour starter like no other, and the edibles I was saving for a Rainy Day were just kicking in.

After “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Highway 61 Revisited,” Bob brought us to “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” The performance contained the first of several playful, improvisational duets between Bob on piano and Donnie on violin. Their interplay is one of the defining elements of the show, and hopefully it will be for the remainder of the tour. Let me try to explain why.

Since at least 2014, the ancient motifs of Bob’s “Masterpiece” have been visually represented on the stage with the adornment of Bob’s piano by (what looks like) a reproduction of the alabaster bust of “Poesia” by the 19th Century neoclassical Italian sculptor Antonio Garella. With Bob now playing an upright, the sculpture sits on a tall ionic pedestal, which itself calls to mind the architecture of ancient Rome. When he’s at his piano, the spotlight near his feet gives the illusion that Bob is Poesia’s light source.

For me, I associate the statue of Poesia with Sigmund Freud, who had figurines like it hanging above his couch for patients to look at during his consultations. These objects had resonance with Freud, who compared psychoanalysis to archaeology — a person’s psyche can be excavated for buried treasure. Another influential psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein, called these things “projective objects,” referring to the psychological process in which a person projects their thoughts and beliefs onto another.

Because of the highly guarded nature of Bob’s process, anything I can say about it is little more than a reflection of who I am, and I can only try my best to be totally aware of it. When I see Bob shining his light on “Poesia,” my own light is shining on Bob, and so what I see won’t ever look like what you’re seeing. Sometimes we can create a little light of our own when we put down in writing what’s in our mind. Over the years Peter was so generous about shining his light on Bob.

The lyrics to “Masterpiece” also allude to the way memory plays the past against the present. The train wheels a-run in the back of our memory. Similarly, Bob’s recent paintings contain deep, and sometimes unacknowledged references to the past. Music, too, is a medium of memory. The shows make clear that the songs are not the recordings we know, and yet we can’t help but hear what he’s playing against what we recall.

So much of the show cannot be described in words. Part of the experience lies beyond rational thought. It’s the vibe and the magic that Bob can create, and it was there in Irvine, particularly in the jams with Donnie on violin. The jam began somewhat spontaneously, with Bob inviting Donnie to come closer to the piano with an encouraging wave. What happened next was a synesthetic improvisation. Donnie worked a nostalgic melody while Bob pushed the keys in every direction, splashing big bursts of color against the monochromatic black canvas of the stage. It was an inspired musical dialogue, and it lifted everyone for Bob’s delivery of the song’s final verses.

I listened to the bootleg that circulated the next day, and I think a lot of this can be heard in the recording. But what you won’t see (unless you were there) is what happened after the song ended. Tony, Bob’s bass player and the band’s leader, had a massive grin on his face, and then leaned in to Bob to give him a round of applause. He recognized how special the moment was.

Over the course of the show, Donnie and Bob would play together frequently. Each jam, including “Fate” and “Lenny Bruce,” was special, moments that recalled the inspired interplay with Scarlet Rivera performed and documented during the Rolling Thunder Revue.

The next highlight was “Lenny Bruce,” with a couple of fresh verses. He cut the line about Synanon and replaced it with a more direct Biblical allusion to Babylon. Bob also tells us Lenny was more of an outlaw than even he ever knew — an epiphany deferred. I always loved the specificity of the reference to Synanon, the Santa Monica-based drug rehab turned violent cult, but maybe Bob felt the reference was dated. But these do not feel like minor rewrites, and one can only speculate why Dylan decided to make them.

Why Dylan is playing this chestnut is another question worth asking. The Irvine show was just days before Lenny’s birthday, October 13, and yet he seems to be keeping the song in the setlist. It’s also possible Dylan felt the song was topical for the college campuses he’s touring this fall, as debates about freedom of speech are trendy again (were they ever not?).

Whatever the reasons, I am thrilled he’s giving this song the run it deserves, and with a beautiful reinvention. By playing with the song’s tone and tempo, he’s made it soft and intimate. The verse about them sharing a cab is a moment of warm, grandfatherly storytelling. It is a stark contrast to the amazing and fiery version performed with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers during the 1986 True Confessions Tour (captured on the concert video “Hard To Handle”). That version, recorded 20 years after Bruce’s death, is curiously intense, and I’ve often wondered if this song is really best understood as autobiographical, a self-conscious projective identification with Lenny’s life and story. You can find this ambiguity in the new lyrics. Lenny’s gone now more than 40 years, and yet Bob is still finding new meanings in his short life. Lenny had to die before ever knowing a really important thing about himself. What is Bob telling us about himself and his life?

Bob’s ever-unfolding artistic rebirth is a modern day miracle. It has no precedent, and I feel personally invested in the sense of the infinite Bob creates through his evolution as an artist. Does anyone have any idea what he has to prove and to whom? Not knowing where he is going or why, there is nothing but honesty at the limits. If I learned anything from reading Peter’s reviews over the years, it’s that each and every show is a journey, and you never know what you’re going to get. I’ve seen shows that were so bad I vowed never to return, and yet here I am, with 18 shows under my belt since November 1, 1998 (MSG, with Joni Mitchell). To conflate two Hunterisms, the trip has been long and strange and there’s no reason it will ever cease to be. Beyond it lies nothing. Thank you, Bob, and Peter. See you down the road.